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2.3: A Brief History of Latinx Racial Formation

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    Spanish Conquest, Colonialism, and Mestizaje

    When national regimes categorize populations, the very act of naming gives them a living reality. ––Ramón A. Gutiérrez

    This section explores the ways Spanish conquest and colonization and U.S. settler colonialism and imperialism have created hierarchical identity categories inherited by contemporary Chicanxs and Latinxs. While settler projects of racial domination have attempted to cement social, economic, political, and national boundaries, marginalized communities have always resisted and subverted these projects, including the ethnic and racial classifications imposed on them by their oppressors. For example, they “generate the names they use to refer to themselves as a collectivity, often in their own native language, thus underscoring their linguistic resistance to domination.”43 In this way, race is both an organizing principle and an identity, both individual and collective, that is unstable and evolves.

    The conquest of the territory that would eventually become the United States began with the Spanish empire laying down permanent settlements in Saint Augustine, Florida in 1565, followed by the kingdom of New Mexico in 1598 (which included the current states of New Mexico and Arizona), and the provinces of Texas in 1691 and Alta California in 1769. All of these settlements were situated on Spain’s northernmost frontier far away from major Spanish centers, mostly isolated from one another, and surrounded by diverse Indigenous nations, many who would remain unconquered.44 These factors led to the creation of distinct regional hybrid subcultures and affinities that were developed along religious lines. “Identification with Spain's various regions persisted in the Americas into the nineteenth century, whether in Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, or Mexico. Residents of the kingdom of New Mexico called themselves nuevo mexicanos and neomexicanos, those in California referred to themselves as californios, and those in Texas as tejanos. Throughout Spanish America loyalty and sense of attachment to the patria chica, to one’s natal place, persisted and remains strong even to this day.”45

    People from the Iberian Peninsula only began to understand themselves as españoles when they became colonists in the Americas––their identities developing in relation to diverse Indigenous peoples who they reduced to indios, a misnaming by Columbus who erroneously believed he had landed in India.

    Inventing Indians was to serve an important imperial end for Spain, for by calling the natives indios, the Spaniards erased and leveled the diverse and complex indigenous political and religious hierarchies they found. Where once there had been many ethnic groups stratified as native lords, warriors, crafts[people], hunters, farmers, and slaves, the power of imperial Spain was not only to vanquish but also to define, largely reducing peoples such as the mighty Aztecs into a defeated Indian class that soon bore the pain of subjugation as tribute-paying racialized subjects.46

    These españoles created rigid social hierarchies and ranked people’s calidad, or social standing, through an intricate classification system that appraised a person’s religion, birthplace, property ownership, and occupation. Over time, race and color became central organizing factors laid out in the régimen de castas, as racial mixing between Spaniards, Indigenous, and African peoples became more common by the mid-eighteenth century. For details about the categories constructed through the castas visit Section 4.1: Concepts for Understanding Chicanx and Latinx Indigeneities. This biological and cultural blending–– a process referred to as mestizaje––often occurred through sexual violence and exploitation against Indigenous and African women, which was sanctioned by the colonial Catholic church.

    The casta system of racial classification was not abolished until Mexico’s independence in 1821, however racial and ethnic social stratification remained prevalent and echoed colonial conceptions of identity. For example, Professor Alicia Arrizón, author of Queering Mestizaje: Transculturation and Performence (2006) argues, “Before and after the independence wars in Latin American and Caribbean countries, nationalist regulations of mestizaje by the criollo elite (Europeans born in the Americas) served to eradicate not only Indigeneity but also African heritage. In addition, the effects of blanqueamiento (or whitening) were encouraged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to improve and ‘purify’ the race, meaning the general national racial composition or the Hispanic race."47 Soon after Mexico’s independence, its northern territories would contend with a new imperial power that would soon imprint its own hierarchical racial structure onto the peoples of that region.    

    Changing Racial Paradigms Under U.S. Imperialism

    Knowledge of the history of relations between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean is indispensable to putting into focus the often forgotten events and circumstances that account for the Latino/a presence here. ––José Luis Morín

    Racial Formation in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

    Beginning in the 1820s the fledgling U.S. nation-state sought to expand its empire through the invasion and annexation of Mexico’s northern territories, culminating in the war of 1846-1848. Opponents of annexation, predominantly politicians, journalists, and businessmen, argued that the incorporation of a “mongrel race” would pollute U.S. democracy, which up to that point, had been built on Indian removal, land theft, genocide, and slavery. Senator John C. Calhoun, a prominent Southern Democratic said, “we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race––the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind, of incorporating an Indian race… I protest such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race.” Protests against annexation would go unheeded, but perspectives such as these would shape race relations in the decades to come. 

    Following the end of the war, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo obliged Mexico to surrender more than 1 million square miles, nearly half of its territory, for 15 million dollars. The Treaty established social, legal, and political boundaries, which in effect, led to the incorporation of approximately 75,000-100,000 inhabitants who had been given the option to move south across the newly drawn geopolitical border or remain in the newly conquered territory and become U.S. citizens. The people absorbed were diverse and included Mexican mestizos, acculturated Indians, secularized mission Indians, as well as unconquered Indigenous nations such as the Apache, Comanche, and Diné, complicating the pledge of citizenship and incorporation into the social body. At the time, full citizenship rights were only conferred to free whites, making it feasible for legislators to “disenfranchise many Mexicans by arguing that such people were of Indian descent and therefore could not claim the political privileges of white citizens.”48 In “Chicano Indianism,” social anthropologist and Chicana/o studies professor Martha Menchaca aptly describes how the existing white supremacist racial paradigm shaped the ways people identified as a survival tactic:

    Given the nature of the U.S. racial system and its laws, the conquered Mexican population learned that it was politically expedient to assert their Spanish ancestry; otherwise they were susceptible to being treated as American Indians (Padilla 1979). At the same time, it became politically expedient for American Indians to pass as Mexican mestizos if they wished to escape the full impact of the discriminatory Indian legislation (Forbes 1973).49

    Key Term: Paradigm

    “A paradigm is a shared set of understandings or premises which permits the definition, elaboration, and solution of a set of problems defined within the paradigm. It is an accepted model or pattern…. Paradigms of race shape our understanding and definition of racial problems.”50

    The term “Spanish American” rose in popularity, especially among nuevomexicanos, in response to heightened white supremacist violence and discrimination. By attempting to align themselves with their European ancestry, however remote, some Mexicans were able to assert their de jure racial whiteness which had been promised to them under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and by extension distance themselves from Indigeneity and Blackness, which continued to be denigrated under the U.S. racial paradigm as it had under Spanish rule. This option to “pass,” however, was not available to most Mexicans who were predominantly of Indigenous and African ancestry. “Court and legislative records from 1848 to 1947 reveal that the skin color of Mexican-origin people strongly influenced whether they were treated by the legal system as white or as non-white,” however, local governments found ways to segregate and otherwise discriminate against white Mexicans based on their Spanish-language backgrounds and other racialized markers of identity.51

    The settlers who came to the U.S. Southwest defined themselves as Anglos and Anglo-Americans, “vaunting their superiority, establishing structures of domination, and asserting that their primacy was rooted in their Protestant God, in their laws and constabularies, in the purity of their whiteness, and in their very way of life.”52 Racial meanings would shift into the next century, but always with the underlying goals of protecting white property and power. “By the 1920s, an influential eugenics movement attempted to clothe such racism in the prestige of science, arguing that, as a mongrel race, Mexican mestizos threatened the nation with racial degeneration.”53 For more on eugenics and segregation visit Section 8.2: The Struggle for Equality, 1900-1954.

    Racial Formation in Puerto Rico

    The United States continued its imperial wars of conquest through the nineteenth century resulting in the capture of several island nations including the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1893 and the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam after the Spanish American War of 1898, settled through the Treaty of Paris. The original inhabitants would have their social, political, economic, civil, and human rights repressed and their identities would now be constructed under the U.S. racial paradigm.  

    Congress followed and extended the precedent set in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo by exerting complete control over Puerto Rico and its inhabitants. The rationale for not granting statehood and political debates around citizenship rights were based on the white supremacist views of the inferiority of mixed-race people, particularly those of mixed African heritage, who were thought of as unable to govern themselves. Eventually, statutory citizenship was granted to Puerto Ricans, but it was merely “a way of showing that they were under U.S. control, rather than the purposes of inclusion.”54 In “A Separate and Inferior Race,” legal scholar and Latinx/Latin American studies professor José Luis Morín points out how “a racialized vision of the peoples of the developing world also proved useful in the establishment of a framework for the unequal application of the law to Latinos/as in the United States.”55 He goes on to demonstrate how decisions over the rights of Puerto Ricans made by the Supreme Court were shaped by the “separate but equal” treatment applied to African Americans for more than half a century (for more on “Jim Crow” and “Juan Crow” visit Section 7.2: Chicanx and Latinx Civil Rights Activism). A major distinction is that Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) has since been overturned but the Puerto Rican Insular Cases (1901) have not, resulting in the present and ongoing colonial status of Puerto Rico and the oppression of its people.  

    Ethnic Nationalism, Ethnic Pride 

    Following the emergence of global decolonization movements in the 1940s, twentieth-century civil rights movements in the U.S., and part of a larger wave of militant ethnic nationalism, many Mexican American and Puerto Rican community activists, students, and faculty abandoned assimilationist forms of activism and adamantly rejected their racial, social, economic, and political marginalization and systemic violence their communities experienced for generations. The late 1960s and early 1970s marked a period of Chicano and Boricua cultural pride, empowerment, self-determination, and liberation. Chicana/o literary scholar Sheila Marie Contreras asserts, “To name oneself as ‘Chicana’ or ‘Chicano’ is to assert a gendered, racial, ethnic, class, and cultural identity in opposition to Anglo-American hegemony and state-sanctioned practices of representing people of Mexican descent in the United States. As it evokes the ‘radical’ politics of cultural nationalism, ‘Chicano’ stands against the institutionally normative ‘Hispanic,’ as well as the linguistically insistent ‘Latino.’”56 A result of these social movements, Chicano studies and Puerto Rican studies programs emerged in institutions of higher learning across the U.S., providing students a space to learn about and reconnect with their histories, philosophies, epistemologies, and intellectual traditions and to develop new politicized identities. 

    Both Chicanos and Boricuas opposed U.S. imperialism and refuted their association with whiteness, a tactic utilized by previous generations to secure civil rights. Many who took on these new labels found inspiration in the ideologies, strategies, and aesthetics of the Black Panther Party and the larger Black Power Movement. “Equally important to both Chicanos and Boricuas was their assault on racism in its material, psychic, and institutionalized forms. Heralding their personal beauty and pride, both movements affirmed the beauty of their art, language, culture, and skin color as a way to corrode the toxicity of racism,” illustrated through the slogan “Brown and Proud” as displayed in Figure 2.3.1, which features two youth activists, one holding up a sign that reads “Brown and Proud I’m the Next Generation.”57 Similarly, Chicana feminists would go on to develop new theories—ones that centered gender, sexuality, Indigeneity, and spirituality, grounded in their embodied identities and experiences, which are explored further in the next section.

    A young man with his hat turned backward and his face masked by a bandana stands next to a young woman holding a sign that reads, Brown and Proud, I’m the Next Generation.

    Figure 2.3.1: “Brown and Proud” by Thomas Hawk, Flickr is licensed CC BY-NC 2.0


    43 Ramón Gutiérrez, “What’s in a Name: The History and Politics of Hispanic and Latino Panethnicities,” in The New Latino Studies Reader: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective, eds. Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Tomás Almaguer (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), 19-20.

    44 Gutiérrez, “What’s in a Name,” 21.

    45 Gutiérrez, “What’s in a Name,” 22.

    46 Gutiérrez, “What’s in a Name,” 23.

    47 Alicia Arrizón, “Mestizaje,” in Keywords for Latina/o Studies, eds. Deborah R. Vargas, Nancy Raquel Mirabal, and Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 133.

    48 Martha Menchaca, “Chicano Indianism,” in  The Latin@ Condition, 2nd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 350-51.

    49 Menchaca, “Chicano Indianism,” 354.

    50 Juan F. Perea, “The Black/White Binary Paradigm of Race,” in The Latin@ Condition, 2nd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 335.

    51 Menchaca, “Chicano Indianism,” 355.

    52 Gutiérrez, “What’s in a Name,” 30.

    53 Curtis Marez, “Mestizo/a,” in Keywords for American Cultural Studies, eds. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler (New York: New York University Press, 2020).

    54 Juan F. Perea, “Tracing,” 76.

    55 José Luis Morín, “A Separate and Inferior Race,” in The Latin@ Condition, 2nd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 126.

    56 Contreras, “Chicana, Chicano, Chican@, Chicanx,” 32. See also, Ruben Salazar, “Who Is a Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?,” Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1970.

    57 Gutiérrez, “What’s in a Name,” 41.

    This page titled 2.3: A Brief History of Latinx Racial Formation is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amber Rose González (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .